In October my book club wrapped up its final month of our 2016 schedule with The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. When the book was originally suggested for the roster, I had no idea what it was, but I had heard only the best things about Ursula K. Le Guin and decided to look into it. The praise I found for this classic science fiction novel was astounding, and it rapidly became one of my front runners in our convoluted voting system for book club books. After winning its way onto the schedule, and having to wait an entire year to read it with the group, I got to read one of the best examples in my memory that some science fiction can be considered Literature.
First, a quick rundown of what the book is for those who don’t know, its basically a huge metaphor for the US and Russia during the cold war. The story follows a brilliant physicist called Shevek during two parts of his life simultaneously, past and present. Shevek lives in a solar system with two inhabited planets, each refusing to communicate with one another. The first planet is Urras, a capitalist planet with multiple states that is an allegory for the US. The second, a communist moon called Anarres that is Russia. Shevek grows up on Anarres and finds the communist mentality stifling, so he decides to break a 100 year cold war/embargo and go to Urras to pursue his science. Shevek’s past timeline chronicles his time on Anarres and his present timeline follows his story on Urras. Both timelines alternate chapters and chronicles his experience with both societies.
The Dispossessed had a feast or famine effect on our book club. People essentially fell into two groups, those who devoured it and could not stop talking about it and those who could not finish the first chapter. Let’s talk about the second group first; the book is dense and requires work. This is not a beach read and requires a lot of work, or active reading, to be done by the reader as they go through the story. Its heavy use of metaphor and minimal concern for captivating plot means it is not really a fun book. It feels more like reading a philosophical dissertation/history book on the cold war than a fictional story. However, for the first aforementioned book club group, it was an intense and one of a kind reading experience.
I myself fell into the first group, and cannot recommend this work of art more. While Le Guin definitely favors one world over another, she only reveals which near the end, and colors it as her opinion more than a fact. All throughout the rest of the book it feels like she fairly breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of both societies while also delving into them and providing insights about their workings that I have never heard before. I am a staunch capitalist in real life, but I found myself considering if there was merit to communism and raptly listening to Le Guin as she showed me other things I should consider about the human condition. Regardless of your stance on either form of government, I think you will find that Le Guin’s points are well thought out, complex, and well argued. The writing is also gorgeous, with elegant prose that does not waste a word. Le Guin manages to somehow be eloquent and minimalist simultaneously in her writing, and I really enjoy her style. The book sparked up an enormous amount of discussion with those who completed it, and it generated what was probably the most rich and expansive conversation we have ever had in our book club. We spent an hour talking about the first chapter alone, and those that read it are still talking about it a week later.
To me, The Dispossessed is a work of art that everyone should try to read. You might really, really not like it, but if you don’t hate it you will love it. I understand now why this book is considered one of the best science fiction novels written, and I believe it firmly demonstrates that science fiction novels can be more than just fun. And on a topical note, if you are feeling burnt out by democracy and capitalism this week (as I know many of us are), why not pick it up and learn some of the merits and weaknesses of good old communism.
Rating: The Dispossessed – 10/10